Thirty years after the community saved the old Fox Theater in downtown Billings, Larry Martin is convinced the community will rally again behind a dramatic overhaul of the Alberta Bair Theater, successor to the Fox. “At this point, it’s impossible to imagine downtown Billings without the Alberta Bair Theater, and I think the bulk of the community sees it that way,” Martin said. Martin is the only member of the ABT’s current board of directors who was also on the board more than 30 years ago, when the City Council voted to buy the historic Fox, saving it from demolition, and giving supporters the chance to raise the $4 million it took to convert it to the Alberta Bair Theater, reports Last Best News.
The board and a host of other supporters are now hoping to make the first major upgrades to the theater since it opened as the ABT in January 1987. They hope to raise at least $7 million in time to start construction in the spring of 2019 and reopen an expanded, modernized theater in the fall of 2020. The formal fundraising campaign has not been launched yet, but the effort got a huge boost last Monday, when the City Council voted unanimously to allocate $3.5 million in tax increment funds to pay for portions of the project, which has a total estimated price tag of $10.5 million to $11 million.
A major component of the overhaul is replacing what Mike Tuss calls the “internally-focused” facade with a two-story wall of glass designed to make the theater itself as much a spectacle as what takes place on its stage. Tuss, who worked on the design for CTA Architects Engineers, said the new facade will create “a sense of pageantry.” Martin, the long-time board member, said the new facade will make the ABT “the beacon on Broadway.”
Jan Dietrich, who has been the director of the ABT for a year but has been involved with the theater in various capacities since 1990, said the planned improvements are needed “to bring this theater into the current century.” Considering all the advances in technology in the past 30 years, she said, the sound and lighting systems are long overdue for replacement, and the HVAC system still runs on an antiquated DOS operating system.
A large part of the board’s pitch to the community will be emphasizing the theater’s impact not just on local culture but on the local economy. Information provided to the City Council said the ABT had expenditures of $1.71 million in the 2015-16 season, and has an estimated annual impact of $4.2 million on the Billings economy. In 2015-16, it hosted 84 events, drawing 84,440 patrons, about 9,200 of whom came from outside Yellowstone County. The theater also has 10 employees and 108 volunteers.